By CBS News
The hunt for Osama bin Laden took nearly a decade. It could take even longer to uncover U.S. government emails, planning reports, photographs and more that would shed light on how an elite team of Navy SEALs killed the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Ten months after that electrifying covert mission, an administration that has pledged to be the most transparent in American history is refusing to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act that would provide insights into how bin Laden died, how the U.S. verified his identity and how it decided to bury him at sea, as well as photographs taken during and after the May 2011 raid on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Government officials have openly discussed details of the mission in speeches, interviews and television appearances, but the administration won’t disclose records that would confirm their narrative of that fateful night. The Obama administration has not even disclosed where all the documents might be stored.
Requests for bin Laden materials were among the most significant of any filed last year under the open records law, which that compels the government to turn over copies of federal records for free or at little cost. Anyone who seeks information under the FOIA is generally supposed to get it unless disclosure would hurt national security, violate personal privacy or expose business secrets or confidential decision-making. The law has been the focus of extra attention since Sunday, the start of Sunshine Week, when news organizations promote open government and freedom of information.
Citing the law, The Associated Press asked for files about the raid in more than 20 separate requests, mostly submitted the day after bin Laden’s death. The Pentagon told the AP this month it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing bin Laden’s body. The Pentagon also said it could not find any images of bin Laden’s body on the Navy aircraft carrier where the al-Qaida leader’s body was taken.
The Pentagon said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of bin Laden’s body if he were killed. The Defense Department said it searched files at the Pentagon, U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., and the Navy command in San Diego that controls the USS Carl Vinson, the aircraft carrier used in the mission.
The Pentagon told the AP in late February it could not find any emails about the bin Laden mission or his “Geronimo” code name that were sent or received in the year before the raid by William McRaven, the three-star admiral at the Joint Special Operations Command who organized and oversaw the mission. It also could not find any emails from other senior officers who would have been involved in the mission’s planning. It found only three such emails written by or sent to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and these consisted of 12 pages sent to Gates summarizing news reports after the raid.
Under the FOIA, even if a document contains secrets about national security, the government can censor those passages but must release anything else in the document that is “reasonably segregable.”
The information blackout means that the only public accounts of the mission come from U.S. officials who have described details of that night. In the hours and days after bin Laden’s death, the White House provided conflicting versions of events, falsely saying that bin Laden was armed and even firing at the SEALs, misidentifying which of bin Laden’s sons was killed, and incorrectly saying bin Laden’s wife died in the shootout. President Barack Obama’s press secretary attributed the errors to the “fog of combat.”
Since then, no authoritative or contemporaneous records have been made available. For the administration, the book on bin Laden appears to be closed.
The administration is refusing even to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters used by the SEALs crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind. People who lived near bin Laden’s compound took photos of the disabled chopper as it straddled one of the building’s high walls. The photos showed a unique tail rotor that aviation experts said was designed to avoid radar detection.
On the AP’s request for the helicopter records and equipment reports, the Defense Department invoked what is known as a “Glomar response.” The reference dates to the 1970s when the CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence of the Glomar Explorer, a ship the agency used in the attempted salvage of a sunken Soviet submarine.
The AP is appealing the Defense Department’s decision. Ten months later, the CIA, which ran the bin Laden raid and has special legal authority to keep information from ever being made public, has not responded to AP’s request for records about the mission. The CIA holds photographs of video recordings of bin Laden taken during the operation.
In the days after the raid, select U.S. lawmakers were invited to visit a secure room at CIA headquarters to view images from the raid, including pictures of bin Laden’s body. They were not allowed to take copies of the photos back to Capitol Hill. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said one photo showed brain matter coming out of bin Laden’s eye socket. Inhofe said others were taken as the body was being prepared for burial at sea and were less jarring.